ABC, CBS Inaccurately Report Pope's Condom Remarks as 'Change in Policy'

On Tuesday evening, ABC and CBS furthered the mainstream media's largely inaccurate reporting on Pope Benedict XVI's recent remarks on the morality of condom use. While the pontiff stated that condoms are "not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection," World News anchor Diane Sawyer stated that "the Pope shifts his rules on condom use." Evening News anchor Katie Couric labeled Benedict XVI's comment a "historic statement," and trumpeted how supposedly, "Pope Benedict says, for the first time, that condoms are okay to protect against HIV and other diseases."

Sawyer included her misleading "Pope shifts his rules on condom use" phrase as she teased the lead stories at the beginning of World News. Sixteen minutes into the half hour program, the ABC anchor introduced correspondent Dan Harris's report, who began by giving a false impression of Benedict's remarks during an interview published in book form given by German journalist Peter Seewald. An on-screen graphic proclaimed, "A Change in Policy:"

HARRIS: In chapter 11 of 'Light of the World,' a new book based on interviews with Pope Benedict, the pontiff says condom use by people, like male prostitutes, is a lesser evil, if it would protect their partners from getting a deadly infection like AIDS. Today, his spokesman said he had personally asked the Pope if he meant just men, and the Pope told him, no, he meant women, too, even if it means preventing a possible pregnancy.

Diane Sawyer, ABC Anchor; & file photo of Pope Benedict XVI | NewsBusters.orgActually, the Bishop of Rome didn't say anything about condoms being a "lesser evil" at all. He stated that "there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this [using a condom] can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality" (fuller excerpt from the interview available here). In other words, the only foolproof way of preventing HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases is to follow the Church's teachings on sexuality and keep sexual intercourse inside the context of marriage.

As for papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi's remarks on the issue, which he gave during a Tuesday press conference at the Vatican, the Catholic News Agency reported that 'he told the press conference that while the Pope had used the example of a male prostitute using condoms, the point could apply to men, women, and even transsexuals engaged in prostitution. 'Whether a man or a woman or a transsexual does this, we’re at the same point,' Fr. Lombardi said. 'The point is the first step toward responsibility, to avoid posing a grave risk to another person.'" Father Lombardi was trying to echo what the Pope said earlier in the interview, though CNA also quoted from leading U.S. Catholic theologian Dr. John Haas, who pointed out that Fr. Lombardi may have inadvertently caused further confusion with his answer.
 


During his report, Harris played three sound bites from an interview of Father James Martin of America magazine, who was widely criticized for his spouting of liberal talking points during a May 2009 panel discussion on CNN. Even Father Martin gave a false impression of the Pope's remarks:

FATHER JIM MARTIN, EDITOR, AMERICA CATHOLIC WEEKLY: This is a big deal, because it's the first time the Vatican has talked about condoms in a positive way as a way to prevent AIDS....

HARRIS (on-camera): For people who are out on the front lines right now- Catholic relief workers working with AIDS victims, how do you think they view this?

MARTIN: I think this is a lifeline to them- I think, because for many years, they have been arguing that this is a way to prevent death.

HARRIS: The Vatican's statement today leaves some serious open questions. For example, if it's okay to use a condom to prevent the transmission of a life-threatening disease, where do you draw the line when it comes to serious, but non-life-threatening diseases like- say, syphilis?

HARRIS (voice-over): We reached out to the Vatican and to the U.S. bishops today and got no response.

HARRIS (on-camera): If the Church hierarchy isn't talking, how does your average Catholic know what to do if he or she has- say, gonorrhea or hepatitis? Is it moral to wear a condom in that case?

MARTIN: Good question.

By contrast, the ABC correspondent only played one clip from an orthodox Catholic. Father Joseph Fessio, who is the American publisher for Pope Benedict's books, correctly pointed out that "he's [the Pope is] definitely not saying that condoms are permitted or justified or approved."

Katie Couric, CBS Anchor; and file photo of Pope Benedict XVI | NewsBusters.ogOn Evening News, Couric emulated CNN's Kyra Phillips misleading take on the papal interview during her introduction for correspondent Elaine Quijano's report, which ran 10 minutes into the program: "Pope Benedict says, for the first time, that condoms are okay to protect against HIV and other diseases. That historic statement is in a new book released today, as the UN announced increased condom use has led to a 20% drop in new HIV infections worldwide over the past decade." Quijano did actually read a quote from the interview, something ABC's Harris didn't do during his report: "In the book 'Light of the World,' Pope Benedict says: 'In the case of some individuals, this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.'"

NBC actually stands apart from ABC and CBS's misconduct in their misleading reporting on Benedict's remarks. On Monday's Today show, correspondent Kerry Sanders accurately covered the pontiff's answers and read fuller excerpts from the interview, along with playing two clips from an interview with Father Fessio.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center